Kissa Tanto: Vancouver’s new jazz-inspired Japanese-Italian restaurant

The owner and chef behind Bao Bei are opening something new—very new

March 29, 2016

By Trevor Melanson / Photo: Kissa Tanto

It’s become something of a cliché to describe a restaurant as both modern and classic, but if ever any has begged for such a description, it’s Kissa Tanto. Food-wise, the restaurant will offer Japanese-Italian fusion (though even that’s flexible, owner Tannis Ling says). But everything else about Kissa Tanto evokes the old. The space is inspired by Tokyo’s many jazz cafés of the 1960s, with dim lighting, classic cocktails, and, of course, jazz playing in the background. We spoke with Ling, best known for her other, much-acclaimed restaurant, Bao Bei, to find out what we can expect when Kissa Tanto opens in April.

So, Japanese-Italian. How did you come up with that idea?

We were bouncing ideas back and forth for a quite a while, and we wanted to step away from the whole small plate sharing thing we’ve been doing at Bao Bei for the last six years. We wanted to do something Asian but a little more comforting—comfort-style rustic food, but still with an Asian element. And [chef Joël Watanabe] is half-Japanese obviously, and he has a lot of experience cooking Italian. He just kind of threw out Japanese-Italian one day, which sounded kind of weird at first, and then I thought about it and realized it could be really interesting because a lot of people are actually already doing it—they’re not actually saying they’re doing Japanese-Italian, but they’re putting Japanese flavours into Italian food.

Had you seen similar restaurants elsewhere—that were calling it Japanese-Italian?

I hadn’t really seen any before we came up with that concept, but once we came up with it we started to do a bit of research, and there are a few places in Australia that are doing similar things. There’s one called Acme in Sydney. And there’s a place in London that does something similar. There are a few places out there.

Let’s talk about the space itself. You’re evoking Tokyo’s old jazz cafés.

We’re going for mid-century modern, very moody, dark. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on the musical aspect of the place because it’s inspired by Japanese cafés in the 1960s. So yeah, cozy, dark, moody, with jazz music and a big long bar…. We’ll play it over our speakers, and I think we’re going to try to get some live music in once we figure out operations and streamline everything. We might do live music on a slower day—Sunday or Monday. We’re only open from Tuesday to Saturday for now.

How about the liquor list? Your other restaurant, Bao Bei, is known for its cocktails.

We have Wendy McGuiness doing our cocktail list. We’re kind of doing updated retro classics, so Irish coffee, amaretto sours, a lot of coffee drinks. The wine list is being done by Layla Shea, and she’s focussed on natural wines. There’s going to be sake on tap and a nice curated sake list. We’ll have local beers as well.

Speaking of Bao Bei, Kissa Tanto is very close by. Was that intentional?

I’ve always really loved this neighbourhood and couldn’t really see myself anywhere else. And this space is pretty unique. It’s upstairs in an old building with old terracotta Chinese tiles.

Getting back to the food, how will Kissa Tanto’s offerings compare to Bao Bei’s?

At Bao Bei, long ago we veered off the Chinese formula and just started experimenting with all sorts of ingredients. If you look at the menu now there’s hardly any Chinese on there. It’s definitely fusion food now. There’s Indian, Malaysian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese—it’s all incorporated. The one thing we were worried about in saying we were Japanese-Italian was that people would automatically come to their own conclusions about what that food would be—and come up with their own disgusting combinations in their head. Which a lot of people have. I’m hoping people come in with an open mind and trust that Joël’s going to take the best ingredients and put them together in the best way he can.

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